BACKGROUND: Cacao is important for the economy of many countries in the humid tropics. Its quality is affected when fruits are not collected at the optimal harvest point. The aim of this study was to obtain maturity indices for producers to facilitate the timely harvest and improve the development of fermentation and the sensorial quality of cacao. The growth and respiration processes, and the physicochemical changes during the maturation of three cacao genotypes were determined. Physiological follow-ups measuring fruit length and diameter were performed from 30 days after anthesis to fruit deterioration in the tree. RESULTS: Growth equations were obtained, establishing four maturity stages based on days after anthesis, and fruit length and diameter. Nineteen descriptors were used for the characterization, and through Pearson's correlation and principal component analysis (PCA), five descriptors were identified as representative of the maturity stages of the cacao fruit. PCA results and respiration measurements established that stage 3 presented the highest substrate availability for obtaining good fermentation and quality cacao. This stage showed values between 124 and 197 days after anthesis with lengths between 167.7 and 249.73 mm, and diameters between 64.4 and 95.8 mm, according to the locality. CONCLUSION: Three growth phases of the cacao fruits were established considering days after anthesis. Both the edaphoclimatic conditions and the cacao genotype characteristics influenced this determination. Stage 3 of fruit maturation shows the best physicochemical conditions for good fermentation.
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